Advice to new students: Explore your world, challenge yourself
May 4, 2017 | Atlanta, GA
Charles Wang was enjoying success in science long before he set foot on Georgia Tech’s campus. When he was at at Walton High School in Marietta, Georgia, his Science Bowl team made three appearances at the national finals.
Now, as he departs Tech, he’ll be leaving with two Bachelor of Science degrees, in Chemistry and Computer Science. He will have almost as many credits as a mathematics major after discovering a love for math during his time at Tech. He’ll pursue that newfound passion as a Ph.D. student in math at the University of California, Berkeley.
Wang is also the recipient of the 2017 Love Family Foundation Scholarship, the highest award for a graduating senior, and the Robert A. Pierotti Memorial Scholarship, presented to a College of Sciences senior who excels in academics and research.
An interview from Wang’s high school days hinted at such stellar achievement. Wang said he started doing Science Bowls because his classmates “just kind of dragged me into it, and once I started, I couldn’t really stop.”
What attracted you to Georgia Tech?
Georgia Tech has been very affordable thanks to the HOPE/Zell Miller Scholarship. I’ve been able to acquire an excellent education without much financial hardship. I also took classes at Tech during high school, which helped me make the transition between high school and college. Georgia Tech is also very good academically.
How would you describe your life before enrolling in Georgia Tech?
I participated in Science Bowl and Science Olympiad in high school, and I took AP science and chemistry courses at Georgia Tech. I have always been fairly certain that I wanted to go to graduate school, and attending Georgia Tech has confirmed this for me. My hobbies include playing instruments (violin, piano, guitar), singing, and outdoor activities such as hiking.
What is the most important thing you learned at Georgia Tech?
The most important academic lesson has been to prioritize and enjoy learning, rather than optimizing every little detail to try to boost my grade. Ironically, when I worried less about my grades, I seemed to do better. It took me a while, but I realized this approach applied generally to life. I tend to worry so much about optimizing every little detail that I didn’t have time to stop and enjoy things.
Georgia Tech exceeded my expectations in a particularly important way: I have always been impressed by the willingness and availability of professors to meet with me.
What surprised or disappointed you the most about Georgia Tech?
I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to interact with professors. While Georgia Tech is a large school, I have never felt lost in the crowd. I could always get help if I needed it.
My only complaint is something always seems to be under construction on campus, but this is a minor nuisance.
I’m sure I could find things to be disappointed about, but I don’t really feel the need to look for disappointment.
Which professor(s) or class(es) made a big impact on you?
During my second year, Art Janata and Mira Josowicz invited me to join their research group. This was my first research experience, and I learned a lot – 99% being stuck and frustrated, and 1% success – that motivated me to pursue graduate studies.
Ying Xiao, a graduate teaching assistant for a computer science class, created extremely challenging homework problems for my algorithms class and expected nothing but the best from each student. Because of his efforts, I discovered my interest in math.
Although I never took a class with Sung Ha Kang, she helped me with many problems and gave me a lot of good advice for school and life in general.
Josephine Yu has been my teacher and research mentor for almost two years. Her tireless, patient instruction and supervision has helped me overcome many obstacles, and her constant support has encouraged me to do things I never would have imagined.
What is your most vivid memory of Georgia Tech?
I have two particular memories.
The first is publishing my first paper. It was the culmination of about a year of work and frustration, and I was overjoyed to see my efforts pay off. The sense of closure that came with submitting the paper was extremely rewarding.
The second is receiving my acceptance to do a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, which has always been one of my dream schools.
If you participated in experiential learning activities, what was the most valuable outcome of your experience?
I participated in undergraduate research for four years (two in chemistry, two in math) and studied abroad in Hungary with the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics program.
For my chemistry project, I studied the deposition of atomic gold clusters onto polyaniline. I gained experience in experimental design, mechanical engineering, and electrochemistry.
For my math projects, I studied a family of polytopes, which can be thought of as generalizations of polygons in higher dimensions. I learned a lot of math during this project, including how to write scientifically and use literature effectively.
My math classes in Hungary were crucial in my decision to study mathematics rather than chemistry, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of living in Hungary for a semester.
On the basis of your experience, what advice would you give to incoming freshmen at Georgia Tech?
Georgia Tech offers many amazing opportunities, but they’re not going to come to you. You have to go after what you want in order to get it.
The undergraduate years are the best for exploration, academically and socially.
It’s not enough to do well in easy classes and excel at easy tasks. Get out of your comfort zone as often as possible – without burning out – and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know how to do something.
What feedback would you give to Georgia Tech to improve the campus experience for future students?
We all have to remember that people who perform badly are not bad people. We should strive to be understanding and tolerant of everyone.
One thing that helped me was feeling that other people believed in my ability to succeed. The support of others helped me overcome self-doubt.
Where are you headed after graduation?
I will go to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D in mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley.
Georgia Tech has prepared me by giving me a very good education in math and giving me many opportunities to perform research; attend seminars, conferences, and workshops; and take interesting and challenging classes.